In one of the more blatant cases of Doctor Who using a B-movie style episode title to pull in the viewers, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” lets us know up front that this is going to be a “romp”—big, loud, and hopefully fun. Writer Chris Chibnall, starting from that bare four-word premise given to him by showrunner Steven Moffat, has come up with a very enjoyable stand-alone adventure that lumbers a bit in the set-up (as is usual with Chibnall) but ultimately delivers some excellent tension and excitement, making good use of previously established Who continuity along the way.
The start, though, is frankly unpromising, as we find ourselves in ancient Egypt, with the Doctor (Matt Smith) having apparently just saved its people from disaster, burbling something about a plague of alien locusts. Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) intercepts him as he returns to the TARDIS and comes on to him in exactly the same way Amy did at the end of 2010’s “Flesh and Stone”. When he receives a sudden temporal newsflash on his psychic paper, she forces her way into the TARDIS to accompany him. Her appearance is striking (and faithfully recreated from the famous limestone bust currently in a Berlin museum), and she is certainly not badly acted, but her dialogue conveys no sense of another time or place—she comes across as just a standard present-day “feisty” female character who happens to be wearing a blue wastebasket on her head. Later, the story does find a way to use her that justifies her inclusion, but at the beginning “Neffy” (as the Doctor calls her) feels like a bizarre, fan fiction-style indulgence.
We next see them in 2367 A.D., where an enormous unknown spaceship (“the size of Canada”) is on course for Earth. The necessary ticking clock for the story is set up right away—in six hours, the ship will be close enough to Earth that missiles will have to be launched to destroy it. I liked the nicely unexplained touch that the organization handling the planet’s defences is the ISA—which turns out to stand for not the International but the Indian Space Agency. It doesn’t make any difference to the actual plot, but it helps make the futuristic environment a little more distinctive than usual, with the understated but effective Indian influence in the background set architecture and graphics.
Despite the Doctor saying he’s “not really had a gang before,” the rest of the teaser rather unwisely invites comparison to the first part of last year’s “A Good Man Goes to War”, with the Doctor collecting people from various times and places to accompany him. He arbitrarily stops off in 1902 to pick up John Riddell (Rupert Graves), an English big-game hunter who is evidently a prior acquaintance, and then pays a surprise visit to the home of his friends Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Not bothering to explain what’s going on, and presuming that Amy and Rory will be happy to drop whatever they’re doing to go along with him (as Rory later says, “Why can’t you just phone ahead, like any normal person?”), he simply materializes the TARDIS around them, meaning that Rory’s father Brian (Mark Williams) gets dragged along for the ride as they all arrive on the mysterious spaceship. Almost immediately, they discover what sort of life forms are on board this ship—dinosaurs!
As Chibnall has noted in various interviews, while the “dinosaurs on a spaceship” premise forms a great hook to bring in the audience, it’s not enough on its own to sustain a 45-minute episode. So the main thrust of the story is the mystery of who built the ship, why it’s heading to Earth, and how it can be saved from the threatened destruction by missiles. In the course of investigating, the group is split up, with the Doctor, Rory and Brian being unexpectedly teleported to a beach that is actually just another part of the huge ship.
One of the things that quickly distinguished the new Doctor Who from the classic series was its approach to the emotional life of companions, outside their relationship with the Doctor. The original series took almost no interest in companions’ family lives, but already by “Aliens of London” in 2005 Russell T Davies was building major plot arcs around Jackie Tyler finding out about her daughter Rose’s involvement in the bizarre world of the Doctor. As succeeding companions came and went, various permutations of the same dramatic idea were used. Since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the companions have become more like those of the classic series, with Amy’s parents having appeared only very briefly (in the 2010 season finale “The Big Bang”) and Rory’s parents being absent altogether. It was time for the idea to be revisited, although here it’s mostly presented in a comic manner—after the requisite boggling at the inside of the TARDIS and the idea of time/space travel, Brian very quickly settles down to become a useful member of the Doctor’s team.
Mark Williams presents a very likable, warm character, and he and Arthur Darvill make a very believable father and son. The episode gets a lot of fun out of the traits Brian and Rory have in common, notably their efforts to be ready for all eventualities. When Rory notices that the beach seems to be humming, Brian produces a handy trowel he happened to have with him (“What sort of a man doesn’t carry a trowel? Put it on your Christmas list!”) so he can dig down and find there is a metal floor under the sand. Later, Brian gets injured, and it’s Rory’s turn to show his preparedness when he pulls out some medical supplies he has picked up in his travels—a nice character touch that makes good use of Rory’s nursing background.
Meanwhile, Amy and the others manage to find the ship’s data records and discover its true nature. Unfortunately, this section in particular exposes Chibnall’s weaknesses with dialogue and characterization. As I mentioned above, Nefertiti gives practically no sense of being a person from the remote past—in fact, she is more modern in outlook than Riddell is, leading to a great deal of tedious “battle of the sexes” bantering between them. As they wander through the ship with Amy, all three are exchanging quips as if they were in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I did get a laugh from Amy’s reaction when she realizes that Nefertiti and Riddell are (cliché alert) starting to become attracted to each other (“No, no, no—I will not have flirting companions!”), but on the whole Amy is a more superficial character here than at any time since the last time Chibnall wrote for her.
At least, unlike in that 2010 two-parter (“The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”), Amy manages to actually contribute to the story and uncover what’s really going on. And here I have to give praise to Chibnall—the revelation that this ship was a creation of the Silurians, a space-going ark containing samples of Earth animals in search of a colony planet, perfectly explains the dinosaurs’ presence aboard and is a lovely usage of the previously established reptilian species. It was a nice touch to bring back Richard Hope, one of the main Silurian actors seen previously, to play the recorded Silurian who delivers the necessary information (he’s credited as “Bleytal,” but I don’t think the name is actually mentioned in the episode). Even better, Amy then gets to use her brain and perform some detective work with the ship’s sensors that reveals another, much smaller ship attached to this one.
The occupant of this intruding ship has been following all the action thus far on his monitors, and overhears Rory calling to the Doctor. Being in need of medical help, he sends his pet robots to fetch them. These hulking, nine-foot-tall creations, with their oversized upper bodies and tiny heads, recall the Mondoshawan aliens from The Fifth Element (1997), but their menace is hilariously undermined when their first words to the Doctor are “We’re very cross with you…” in a deliberately camp voice. Even as they are escorting their prisoners, they are tossing insults back and forth, providing a very funny element which heightens the contrast with some of the darker moments to come.
The robots’ master is Solomon (David Bradley), and the Doctor finds him immobilized in his ship with badly injured legs—the result, he says, of an encounter with some of the dinosaurs. At first the Doctor is enjoying good-naturedly sparring with him, but there’s a sudden shocking change of tone as Solomon reveals he is a much more dangerous man than was first apparent. Bradley expertly conveys the moment, when the Doctor tells Solomon he’ll fix his legs “if you tell me how you came by so many dinosaurs”—at this slightest hint of opposition, his face slowly hardens, he harshly orders the robots, “Injure the older one,” and then he calmly threatens to kill Brian unless the Doctor does as he says.
With all the characters and pieces of the plot now set up, the remainder of the episode is very well worked out and was a pleasure to watch. This is where Chris Chibnall shines—whatever his shortcomings in other areas, he is very good at structuring a story and building a plot to a climax. The driving force of this plot, of course, is the battle of wills between Solomon and the Doctor. Matt Smith and David Bradley have a string of excellent scenes, in many of which Solomon seems to have the upper hand—such as when the profit-at-all-costs trader smugly describes how he disposed of the Silurians he found on board the ship. (“We ejected them. The robots woke them from cryo-sleep a handful at a time and jettisoned them from the airlocks. We must have left a trail of dust and bone…”) The Doctor’s disgust is palpable, but he can only bide his time.
Director Saul Metzstein, new to the show, does well at creating an expansive feel for the huge spaceship; the unusually large sets give an appropriate sense of scale, and the exterior is a lovely computer-generated creation, looking like an enormous seed cluster floating in space. He also has a high-quality and high-profile ensemble cast to work with—Rupert Graves is easily recognisable as Lestrade from Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, and both Mark Williams and David Bradley are playing characters not dissimilar to those they portrayed in the Harry Potter films. As a final touch (and one that was not announced before the episode’s broadcast), Solomon’s bickering robots are voiced by the British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
As for the dinosaurs themselves, they are effective creations—perhaps not up to the latest blockbuster movie state-of-the-art, but very well done given the resources of a TV series—not to mention being several orders of magnitude more impressive than those in the classic series’ most notorious previous attempt at portraying the giant lizards. The mid-’70s tale “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” remains one of Doctor Who’s most embarrassing visual effects failures, with the creatures represented via small-scale, slow-moving rod puppets, unconvincingly green-screened into the action. Nevertheless, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” shares with “Invasion” the feature that the titular monsters are actually only a small part of the plot. The story reserves them for set pieces, ranging from their opening appearance which allows the Doctor to name-drop the story’s title, a flock of pterodactyls on the beach menacing the Doctor, Rory and Brian, a sleeping T-Rex, and a group of velociraptors which Riddell and Amy have to hold at bay with stun-guns.
The major featured dinosaur is a triceratops, beautifully rendered with a seamless mixture of prosthetics and CGI. It’s the only one that the characters interact with to any real extent, and it is amusingly given the personality of an over-affectionate puppy, slobbering over Brian and happily chasing after thrown golf balls. After the Doctor, Rory and Brian escape from Solomon, the story’s biggest set piece occurs as they ride the triceratops to get away from the robots chasing them. If you ignore the fact that they could quite obviously have gotten away more effectively just by walking briskly, it’s a delightfully fun sequence.
The levity soon evaporates as the Doctor confronts Solomon again. He realizes that Solomon hasn’t been able to change the course of the ship—it’s heading back to Earth automatically, and when the ISA launch their missiles as planned, it looks like Solomon will have to leave empty-handed. But now he has a new target; he has discovered Nefertiti’s presence on board and wants to take her with him. In another escalation of menace, he casually has his robots kill the triceratops. David Bradley resolutely refuses to indulge in any pantomime-villain histrionics, instead keeping Solomon’s voice level and low, letting his actions speak for him, and thereby makes the man genuinely threatening.
Solomon: “I like my possessions to have spirit. Means I can have fun breaking them.”
In actual history, Nefertiti’s fate is undocumented—she disappears from the historical record around 1330 B.C. This of course provides an irresistible opportunity for a Doctor Who episode to play with, as with the similar case of the pirate captain Henry Avery in 2010’s “The Curse of the Black Spot”. As I alluded to earlier, it’s a clever piece of scripting to have Solomon spot her unique value, and thereby justify her presence in the story—for a moment, it looks as if he will be the one responsible for her disappearance.
The Doctor manages to stop Solomon’s ship from leaving, but the missiles are still coming. In a final twist, it emerges that the reason Solomon couldn’t change the ship’s course is that it requires two pilots from the same “gene chain” (a nice use of previously established Silurian terminology) to control it—and the plot reaches a neat resolution as Brian and Rory, who have exactly the kind of connection needed, take control and turn the ship away from Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, manages to rescue Nefertiti and plant the signal emitter that the missiles are locked onto on Solomon’s ship. He then releases it, sending the trader off to meet his richly deserved doom.
A brief epilogue shows that Nefertiti has decided to stay with Riddell, while we see Brian sitting in the doorway of the TARDIS in space, sipping tea, looking at the Earth suspended below. It’s a nice, upbeat ending to a cheerful adventure. Despite my various complaints noted above, I ended up enjoying “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”—it fulfils the promise of the title with admirable efficiency and a certain amount of cleverness in the plotting. There’s only one thread I haven’t yet mentioned—one obvious connection to wider events—and that’s the moments the Doctor has with Amy.
Early in the episode, she tells him it’s been ten months since she and Rory last saw him, and wonders if the presence of other people traveling with the Doctor means that she and Rory have been replaced. The Doctor replies, “No, they’re just people, they’re not Ponds.” They are separated for most of the episode, but in the lead-up to the climax they finally have a chance to discuss things. I may be doing Chris Chibnall a disservice here, but I strongly suspect that this conversation was inserted by Steven Moffat to lay the groundwork for upcoming events. It’s clearly Karen Gillan’s best moment of the episode, as Amy confesses she gave up the modeling job we saw her doing last week:
Amy: “I can’t settle. Every minute, I’m listening out for that stupid TARDIS sound.”
The Doctor: “Right, so it’s my fault now, is it?”
Amy: “I can’t not wait for you—even now. And they’re getting longer, you know, the gaps between your visits… I think you’re weaning us off you.”
When Amy tells of her fear that one day he’ll simply stop showing up and she’ll be left waiting forever, he promises her, “Come on, Pond. You’ll be there till the end of me.” Amy cheerfully replies, “Or vice versa,” and then there’s an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, “Done…” He immediately pretends that he just meant he had finished what he was working on, but it’s obvious that something important has been set in motion. An ominous portent for the future, and a signal that the time for carefree adventuring is over.
Next Week: We’re off to the Wild West, as the Doctor arrives in “A Town Called Mercy.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As mentioned above, see 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen, for some considerably less convincing giant reptiles. Even by the standards of the time, the creature effects are excruciatingly bad, but the story itself is actually quite good—a conspiracy-based eco-thriller that not even ridiculous puppet dinosaurs can quite spoil.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.